Dunkirk— When a Retreat was an Advance

Christopher Nolan is one of the great directors of the 21rst century, best known for his work on Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy. Dunkirk measures up to his earlier best work, and is a thrilling ride from start to finish. Nolan lets the action tell the story, rather than having a narrator as well as the visuals. There are no stars in this movie really, unless one counts the occasional scenes with the excellent Kenneth Branagh as a navy commander (N.B. he’s Irish, not English, a Belfast boy). The movie has you at ‘hello’ and keeps you gripping your seats until the full hour and 47 minutes is up. The story line largely follows a young British soldier whom we first see running through the streets of Dunkirk, onto the beaches, where some 400,000 British soldiers are waiting desperately to be picked up and transported home. Little did they know that some mid-level military person had ordered the big naval vessels not to go, as they could not dock at Dunkirk. Hence the armada of small vessels from the coast of England that comes to the rescue. We follow the trials and travails of the young British soldier off and on from start to finish in the movie. But his story is not THE story, it is the story of the rescue, and Nolan depicts it brilliantly. We see the rescue through the eyes of a father and his sons who command the Moonstone, a fishing boat, and take it all the way to Dunkirk. Remember that the setting is May 1940, and Germany has spread its tentacles all the way to the coast of France, trapping these soldiers on the beach as they retreat. What could have been the worst military disaster in history, thanks to ordinary people became the greatest rescue in history— some 360,000 out of 400,000 were rescued! It really was quite miraculous.

This is not your typical war movie. It is not for example like Saving Private Ryan which gives you a real feel for war. We do see some fighting from the air when the RAF pilots, few in number try to keep the Nazis from sinking all the rescue boats (including Red Cross boats). There are subplots of bravery, fear, and mostly the struggle of many to simply survive the disaster. The will to live, especially when you are young, is strong. And make no mistake, it was indeed in many cases survival of the fittest, or at least those who persevered until help could come.

This movie is full of tension, and heroism, and tragedy, and it prompts quite the emotional response when you see the bravery of the ordinary folk who come to the rescue. Churchill was right– ‘we shall never give up’ and they did indeed live to fight another day. For those that know history, there is irony here. D-Day at Normandy Beaches took place only a few miles from Dunkirk in 1944. But long before that the great battle of Agincourt between 5,000 English and 20,000 French happened, with the English prevailing. It was in part, because of history like that, that the indomitable spirit of the English came to the fore in May 1940.

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